Is Self-publishing harming authors & the publishing industry?

Self-publishing has been growing at an impressive or alarming rate, depending on which side of the fence you are. Authors tired of waiting for the bigger publishing companies are taking the reins of writing, editing, cover designing and publishing into their own hands. Some are making money. Most are falling by the wayside.

Are self-published authors making money?

Huffingtonpost reports some startling facts.

– For new, unestablished authors (those who have published less than 2 books), less than 25% have been able to sell more than 100 copies of their ebooks in a month

– Close to 50% of all authors sell less than 10 ebooks per month

If you now combine that with the fact that most of these ebooks are selling for 99 cents, you’d know how far from retirement you’d be if were depending solely on your book sale income.

It’s not surprising then to see that self-publishing has got some negative press.

What is it about self-publishing that giving it a bad name

Dropping quality standards: The quality of a whole lot of what gets pushed into the ebook space in the name of self-published books is bad. Alright, let’s stop being too polite and get real. Much of it stinks. There are spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, structural issues, consistency problems. The book covers (many of these are self-designed) are unintentionally hilarious. The professional look and feel is completed missing.

Competing on price: With very little real money being invested in the self-publishing project’, authors feel anything they can get from putting their ebook up on Kindle or any of the ebook publishing platforms, is pure profit. Which means they can crank up the pressure on traditional as well as other self-published authors by lowering their book prices. While a regular book might sell in the international market for $10 – $25, you’ll find most ebooks selling for 99 cents. Serious book lovers who drive the market, never had a big problem paying for high-quality content they like and from credible authors.

Trying marketing stunts: Post a (good) review on Amazon and be eligible to win – a Kindle, a year’s supply of [fill in whatever you like], a life-time supply of [fill in whatever you like better]. All this is fine to get some quick attention. But who’s going to keep track of whether the marketing initiative is helping or harming the book. To hell with the break-even number.

Bad reviews to pull down rival authors: Instead of trying to make the publishing pie bigger and increasing the market for their genre, new authors think it’s a zero sum game. A rival author gaining ground doesn’t necessarily mean you are losing yours. But Amazon cracked down on many authors who were using false accounts to bring down other authors.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, you have to admit that there’s some credit in those arguments.

So what can you do to ensure that you don’t follow the herd and end up getting sheared (wah wah! watte visualisation!)

How to avoid the common mistakes while self-publishing

If you are planning to take the self-publishing route, here are some basic principles that you can still adhere to.

– Ensure that the book looks and feels ‘professional’

Whether it’s the quality of writing, the book cover, the plot or the overall effort that has gone into it before it hits the ebook shelves. Remember that your book will not be in the hands of paying customers, and they will not be as accommodating as the friends and family members who gave you the initial feedback.

– Do some market research to see how you can price it

More on how to price your ebook in another post (if there’s interest). But as a general rule, a very high price will mean you sell very few copies. A very low price means you don’t value your book.

– Have a creative, effective and ethical marketing plan

Gimmicks like free give-aways involving high-priced items will attract the wrong audience. Some of them (including the final winner) might look for ways to game the system to increase their odds like multiple entries under different IDs.

I wouldn’t want this blog to turn into a one way street, so some views, feedback, ideas are always welcome.

I do know several readers have taken the route of self-publishing (either directly or through vanity publishers). Wondering if you’d be willing to share your experience about your overall experience so far – the publishing process, book sales. Anything you’d have done differently? Commenting anonymously is fine too.

26 Comments

  1. PIERRE FRANCIS says:

    I agree with your view on self-publishing with regard to quality standards. However, even if the self-published author can guarantee quality (either through ruthless self-editing, or by hiring an editor, or both) he is at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing his work. Traditional publishing is more sensible, but one is at the mercy of so-called agents, most of whom are disenchanted authors who couldn’t make the cashbox ring with their literary efforts.

  2. Sameer says:

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Pierre. True, the bigger challenge definitely is marketing.

    I just checked out your site. Pretty impressive resume you’ve got there. (For others keen to see it, here’s the link).

    With your experience in advertising, any tips that you might want to share with the folks reading this?

  3. R-A-J says:

    U’re doing great, Sameer! Keep up the good job! 🙂

  4. Mangala says:

    Hi Sameer, a great job! Coudl you please share the name of your literary agent? I tried hard t find a good one…but I could not.

    Thank you and best wishes!

    Mangala

  5. Sameer says:

    Thanks, Mangala.

    Here’s the list of literary agents in India.

  6. Mangala says:

    Thank you, Sameer!

  7. Mangala says:

    Hi Sameer,

    Sorry to bother you…I approached a self publishing company and I am not able to understand this statement of theirs:
    The bottomline was that Shipping and handling for complimentary titles, if any, are not included in the publishing package price. Some restrictions may apply.
    Ø You will need to pay for the shipping cost of the package books.

    Does this mean that each time someone orders my book say in UK, I will have to pay the costs of sending them the book? Then what will I earn, if at all? I am scared that I will end up owing money to the company even after paying them to publish my book. I was not able to understand their statement about the shipping costs.

    Best wishes,

    Mangala

  8. Sameer says:

    Mangala,

    From the wording of the first sentence, seems like it applies to complimentary copies only. But you’ll need to view it in the right context along with the other clauses in the contract.

    For paid copies, the buyer pays for the shipping costs, not the author.

    In theory, a (traditional or vanity) publishing company is only supposed to publish. If it takes on the role of distributors, retailers and courier agencies, the costs will go up. If they decide to pass it on to the author (as opposed to the reader), you can forget about making any money out of it.

    Be careful what you are getting into.

  9. Mangala says:

    Hi Sameer,

    Thanks for taking the trouble to advise me. I have approached the Partridge imprint of Penguin India (self-publishers). They say that they have the resources to distribute worldwide, as e-book and paperback, and they have many packages, starting from 12,500 rupees to 149,500 rupees. I was thinking of the Amethyst package, priced at 19,500 rupees, which offers e-book, and paperback editions and online distributions.
    You see, I have been reading book all my life, (I am 45, a gold medallist lecturer)and I wrote four books, none of them published. One is a romance,one is a book which will be very useful to a certain category of people,and one of them is about the reality women face when they approach the law in our country, in domestic violence. The last one is about the City of Widows and other tales of women, based on reality, and uncommon,I mean,I have never seen such stories on TV. I tried to get them published traditionally, but have drawn a blank. Which is why I have chosen to take this route.
    Any advice is most welcome.
    Thank you, and best wishes!
    Mangala

  10. Sameer says:

    Mangala,

    Four books! Nice.

    It is a tough market to break into. Which is why a leading name such as Penguin saw potential to acquire and lend its brand to Partridge, a self-publishing company.

    This is a recent development, as the official announcement happened less than a fortnight back. So I don’t have any inputs on how different it would be from any other self-publishing company operating in India

    Here’s an article that you may find useful –> Partridge Publishing in India.

  11. Mangala says:

    Thank you Sameer! Somewhere down the line, I will certainly share my experience with them on this site. I will mention you in my acknowledgements, if I get a book published, keep your fingers crossed for good luck for me!

  12. Sameer says:

    Keeping eight fingers crossed for you, Mangala…2 for each book.

    Good luck!

  13. Rohan Govenkar says:

    Hi

    I have a complete manuscript of a novel and I wanted to get it published. There was this little puzzle in my mind. I learnt that the author himself needs to market and promote his book, whether he goes the self publishing way or the traditional publishing way.
    Now when we talk about marketing, it involves all those videos, the FB paid marketing, the newspaper ads etc. All this doesn’t come cheap.

    Now in case of traditional publishing, the publisher makes maximum benefit of the promotion which you do, as compared to what you make yourself. Whereas in case of self publishing, you invest your own money, and promote your own product, and earn a healthy proportion on your extra investment which you put into marketing.

    So doesn’t it make more sense to get a novel self published?
    Or am I getting this whole thing wrong?

  14. Sameer says:

    Rohan,

    Little technicality. The publisher doesn’t get the biggest chunk. Read this: Book publishing industry: How the revenue pie gets shared.

    But your bigger point about authors not gaining the max benefit is correct.

    And to be fair to the publishers, they’ve already invested quite a bit in getting the book to the market (editing, cover, typsetting, printing, shipping etc).

    As an author, you have more flexibility in how you want to promote it. For cost reasons, you may decide to use only social media. Or maybe add a simple book trailer.

    Newspaper advertisements are the most expensive, and the returns aren’t guaranteed either.

    There are pros and cons to self-publishing. Weigh them before taking a call.

  15. Ankit Khandelwal says:

    Hi Sameer,
    Would you tell me for an first time author which is preferable, self or traditional. In traditional publishing what do they do that a first time author gets good sales because making it available online is the only purpose right? People say that traditional publishing makes your book available to distributors and eventually to retails. but how many copies do you expect to sell if you are a first timer? basically kindly explain the rational behind why should any one do traditional publishing?

  16. Sameer says:

    Traditional publishers have access to a much bigger distribution network (not just online shops, but offline as well). That can improve the visibility and the possibility that your book gets discovered by a potential reader.

    Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that the author can sit back and relax.

  17. Manoj says:

    Hello Sameer,

    I have almost completed a book, a fiction novel, and I am sure about the grammar and vocab of the book. I also think that the plot is unique, and am sure the book will do wonders if it gets published properly. I have contacted Partridge and Notionpress. Now, I wanted to know, rather compare, Partridge’s amethyst package and Notionpress’s silver package. And how much audience you think I can get with these packages, assuming the book has great story.

    • I’m sorry but I can’t help with the comparison. But what I can say is that your readership is going to be decided on a whole lot of other factors (including your promotion strategies) and not so much on the money you pay to get published.

      • Magda says:

        Thank you for being a voice of reason. I have no earthly idea where all the hysteria is coming from. It’s not ingtluins, it’s just a dumb ad, which they wisely pulled. They missed the mark, but dude, they have some seriously effective medicine for aches and pains.With the ills of the world, there’s GOT to be more productive use of our time and energy.

    • Suneet says:

      Hello Manoj,

      I know am writing to you quite late, 2 years to be precise, since your post. But my mother’s horrendous experience of publishing a Malayalam novel through Notion Press has prompted me to write here so that they do not take any more gullible budding writers for a ride.

      For starters, Notion is run by a bunch of ‘unprofessionals’ who are experts in misinforming, misrepresenting, lying & fooling authors. This is true across hierarchies & does not matter whether you speak to the MD, line managers or support executives. My mother, a senior citizen, made the mistake of printing her Malayalam novel ‘Santhiyelekki’ via this wonderful printing company despite being told they had no base or pedigree in the language. Her experience with local publishers in Kerala wasn’t easy mainly due to the distribution challenges & seeing Notion’s façade of smooth talk, her naivety made her fall for them, something she was to regret forever. From haphazard printing, poor print quality, elementary typing & grammar mistakes to lack of response, she got everything she did not bargain for. The icing on the cake was when she was told that the Silver Package for ~Rs. 25,000 + taxes would entail her to get only 5 author copies & for every subsequent copy, she would have to pay 50% of the book’s price (Rs. 425). Even though this was never told to her in the beginning (in fact, their modus operandi was never transparently spelt out by Notion, possibly deliberately), she took this on the chin & stayed hopeful that Notion’s much hyped online promotion capabilities would give her book circulation. When even this proved to be a non-starter, she lined up with a few distributors in Kerala on her own & decided to pay Notion whatever they asked so that she could distribute the books herself. To her horror, this turned out to be a nightmare with Notion’s staff promptly taking the payment & then spinning stories of how dispatch is delayed due to the courier company’s mistake, consignment being returned to them due to no mobile number being provided, etc., all the while when even the books had not been printed at their end! Even as I type, the horror continues for her, leaving her completely exasperated by the devil-may-care attitude of these imbeciles. For my mom, it was never about earning money as an author, but about getting creative satisfaction. Notion & their entire team have successfully ensured that she gets neither money nor peace. To sum up, if you are an author wanting to publish your book, stay as far away as possible from Notion Press.

      With reference to Sameer’s article, I wish to state that firms like Notion ruin the name of the Indian publishing industry & need to be boycotted by budding writers.

  18. kartik says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I need an advice from you. Last year I self published my novel but it was the worst mistake I would ever do. I should never have self published.
    Anyways, I just want to ask, can I submit the same manuscript (with few changes) of my first novel to different publishers as a fresh work, as a first time author while it is still being published under my original publishers. All the rights are with me only, they only have the publishing rights.
    Or should I first terminate my contract with them and start afresh to get a traditional deal for my novel?
    I really want to publish it traditionally all over again.

    • Generally, publishers stay away from self-published books and prefer taking on new authors who don’t have any ‘baggage’ (for lack of a better word).

      However, they’d still be interested if you can show them that the book did really well independently (without the backing of a big publisher) and can do better if it had a more professional backing.

      Managing the rights isn’t the major hurdle. There have been cases where established authors have moved from one publisher to another.

      So, it wouldn’t help you to terminate the current contract before you have anything else in hand.

  19. kartik says:

    Thanks.

    But the book isn’t doing well and terminating the contract will result in removing the book from everywhere on the internet as if it never existed. So in that case, it would be like a fresh manuscript which never was published so can this be sufficient to approach new publishers in a traditional manner?

    • I don’t think it’s so easy to completely delete the online footprint of a book, when it has been in existence for almost a year. And also considering the fact that it has originated from another publishing house, has their ISBN, book details uploaded by their Amazon account.

      There may be other contractual issues that you need to consider to evaluate the implications of termination.

      Also, as a general rule of thumb, your next publisher will appreciate transparency from your end rather than discovering it later from secondary sources.

      Of course, these are just my subjective thoughts. If you have a strong reason to go ahead with what you’ve planned, then do your homework before taking a call.

  20. Aarif says:

    Hi Sameer,
    I have written accountancy textbook for CBSE board’s students. I want to publish my book at very low cost for the students (approx. at Rs. 120) I m really very much confuse to whether I shud go with traditional publishers or with self publishing service. Although my books distribution will be in the limit of India territory..
    And same I have limited finance for such work. (Approx Rs. 20000)

  21. Varun says:

    Hi Sameer,
    Your write-up was very interesting to read. In June, I signed a self-publishing deal with Partridge. But recently, I came across a few blogs and things that made me a little wary of Partridge, mainly because the blogs said that the publishing company had not paid them their royalties and had added deliberate grammatical errors to the manuscript. But of course, mine is a case of too little, too late. How far do you think I, as a first-timer, should believe this?
    Another question: Am I allowed, after self-publishing a book, to send a manuscript to a literary agent since the copyright lies with me?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *